I’ve always been taken with the magic of photography. As a 13-year-old kid going to work for my photographer uncle I spent countless hours sitting in total darkness developing 8×10 sheet film. The luminescent markings on the Gralab timer getting harder to read by the minute. I remember the sweat dripping off my forehead into the developing tank as my arm, elbow deep in the D-76 felt around for the sheet of film that slipped out of the hanger. I learned a lot those five summers before going to art school.

I went to Philadelphia College of Art. I went there because my father went there. My father was the one who told me I should study fine art as opposed to taking a more commercial route. He thought it was ridiculous to study commercial art. Since he was paying, I was more than happy to follow his advice.
After graduating with a BFA in Fine Arts/photography concentration I got a case of what do I do now syndrome. All the other kids I knew who majored in Illustration, Graphic Design and Photography dressed up and went out with their little black cases filled with school projects. I had a painting teacher who told me “why don’t you get a job in a museum, museums hire artists all the time” more on that later.

I had some awful jobs in the 3 years following art school. Baby photographer being the worst that comes to mind. I managed to do this for a week. The company, Americana Portraits would buy new mother lists from diaper companies and hospitals and a woman would call these new mothers and tell them congratulations on your new baby, we would like to offer you a free portrait sitting of your new child. They would send the new photographers out with an experienced photographer to these people’s homes to take portraits of these newborns and then try to hard sell them huge deluxe photo packages for hundreds of dollars before they even got to see how the pictures turned out. It was all about getting the money upfront. Many of the sittings were in very poor neighborhoods where there didn’t seem to be money for clothes let alone pictures. What made me quit was one particular instance of going to an apartment in the projects in Newark, NJ. The new mother said she wanted the pictures but couldn’t afford them. The experienced photographer I was working with proceeded to tell her how great the pictures were going to be and she was going to miss out on the chance of a lifetime. “Can’t you borrow the money from relatives? he proceed to say. I just remember her breaking down and crying. That was enough for me.

I applied for and got a job in a color lab developing color sheet film by hand. I knew how to load the hangers and aside from the hotter, smellier chemicals used for process c-41 I was home again sitting in total darkness watching that timer. They liked me so much they gave me a raise after a month and taught me how to color print when one of the color printers, Mohammed left to go back to Pakistan to visit his wife for 45 days! When Mohammed returned I felt it was time to move on so I went back to assisting photographers, working in Bamberger’s photo studio in Newark learning how to spray milk on flatware with an airbrush to tame the reflections. I was particularly good at making themed backgrounds for photo shoots, that BFA was paying off. Funny thing was the reason I left that place was because I had a college degree. A few of the photographers were resentful that I was a college graduate. I was called “college boy” and left because I was never made a full-time employee.

“Why don’t you get a job in a museum, museums hire artists all the time”
The Sunday New York Times Employment Section had an ad for an assistant Preparator at The American Museum of Natural history. I was vacuuming the T Rex, cleaning stuffed birds with gasoline and making mounts to display artifacts. This was the ultimate job and would probably still be there today if the money wasn’t so ridiculously low. But hey, I did get away from photography which made me love it again after getting away from the seedy side of it. I went on to parlaying my first museum experience into a career as an exhibition designer at some of the finest museums in the world.

And I’m still taking pictures.

marksteigelman.com

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